It’s painful, but let’s get the unpleasant if entirely necessary ‘congratulations to the victor’ bit out of the way first, shall we?
There’s simply no way of sugar-coating it: Alex Neil and his Stoke City players did a comprehensive number on us on Saturday afternoon.
They exploited our weaknesses, forced us into mistakes, and headed back to the Potteries with a superb victory in the bag. Yes, they were aided and abetted by a comically poor performance from the Lads, but they cashed in and for that, you simply have to say ‘fair play’.
Standing twenty yards away from the spot he would’ve still occupied had circumstances not changed, our former boss could probably have forgiven himself a gleeful smile as his Wearside return ended in euphoric fashion for at least one set of red and white-clad supporters.
Neil’s status as the pantomime villain was the day’s main subplot but by 4:50pm, those left inside an almost-empty Stadium of Light (bar a delighted travelling support) had other things to worry about.
What the hell had happened? How on earth did we end up shipping five goals against such an average, if functional team? What on earth was Tony Mowbray thinking by picking six attackers and offering no protection to his defence?
The questions are many, and the fallout has been ugly.
Simply put, this was an absolute horror story, the kind of match that should be locked in a dark vault and never viewed again, lest we put ourselves through the agony of seeing the likes of Dwight Gayle and Josh Laurent run rampant against our shellshocked team.
It was also entirely unacceptable for a club with aspirations of future success, and our heaviest-ever defeat at the Stadium of Light was easily the most gut-wrenching loss we’ve experienced for some time.
In terms of sheer ineptitude, it was down there with the 6-0 loss at Bolton that ended Lee Johnson’s spell as head coach, and the 1-4 defeat to Bolton that brought the curtain down on Roy Keane’s time in charge.
Such hammerings are always difficult for a boss to endure, as Johnson could attest to, but on the other hand, the situation is slightly different now. We aren’t trying to escape the League One backwater, this is the first real bad spell of form that we’ve hit, and Mowbray is working with a squad shorn of its captain and leading striker.
Will it damage Mowbray’s standing? Probably not too much in the eyes of the club hierarchy.
He was brought here to be a stabilising influence and to guide a young squad through their first season of second tier football. By and large, he’s succeeded and while there’s no doubt that an upgrade will be needed for a future promotion challenge, that’s a discussion for another day.
Perhaps the club and Mowbray might shake hands and part ways amicably if we finish in mid-table. Maybe a younger head coach is their longer-term target, but if we’re talking in terms of aspirations carried over from last summer, the boxes are being ticked.
This season has been one of highs, lows, frustrations and optimism for Sunderland.
Broadly speaking, we’ve added real value to the Championship and have rarely looked out of our depth. We’ve played some dazzling football at times and have achieved some eye-catching results, but when our fragilities are exposed, the end result has often been catastrophic.
If the losses against Rotherham and Coventry were poor, this was even worse, and the scar of losing to their former boss is one that these players will wear for some time.
We were timid, lethargic, disorganised and completely overrun. Too many individual players were a mile below par and collectively, there was no cohesion. From Anthony Patterson’s wayward kicking to Joe Gelhardt’s lack of punch upfront, it was a disaster from start to finish.
Yes, Mowbray carries the can for his decisions, but the players need to take responsibility too. Playing for this club demands resilience and an element of defiance in tough times and these players didn’t show it on Saturday, and that’s the most damning indictment.
It’s been a bad week all round for Sunderland, from the ongoing and thorny issue of where away supporters are seated, to the sudden announcement (with seemingly no consultation with the supporters) of a digital season card that has the potential to cause more issues than it solves.
With a run of tough fixtures to come, the players and coaches owe us a very strong response, starting with next weekend’s trip to Carrow Road to face a useful Norwich City team.
They’ve experienced the elation of playing for Sunderland when things are going well and everything clicks, and now it’s the polar opposite. The past ten days have been brutal for everyone connected with the club, and the slide simply has to be stopped by hook or by crook.